The Tragedy of Mexico’s Election

6 minute read
Alex González Ormerod is the founder of The Mexico Political Economist, a weekly publication covering Mexican politics and business. He has written about Mexican politics, culture, and economics for Americas Quarterly, Whitepaper, Rest of World, and Hyperallergic.

That it is a foregone conclusion that Claudia Sheinbaum will be Mexico’s next President is a tragedy for Mexican democracy. Sheinbaum is Mexico’s presidential frontrunner and the anointed successor of the country’s powerful President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. She leads most polls with a large double-digit margin that has remained virtually static for the entire campaign.

The tragedy isn’t that she is likely to win—a large majority of Mexicans will happily and democratically cast their ballots on June 2 for what will be the country’s first woman President (and the first of Jewish descent). It is how easily this triumph has been handed to her, even after campaigning on a platform of continuity in a country ravaged by violence, lawlessness, and twin fiscal and environmental crises.

Sheinbaum’s allies rebut this criticism by pointing to the positive impact the current Morena government has had through its more progressive policies—salaries have gone up and the economy is growing. They add that the numbers speak for themselves: the President has a 66% approval rating. But that figure is misleading; López Obrador’s approval rating falls within the average of virtually every President from the past 30 years.

Most Mexicans don’t necessarily adore the current government. They simply have not been given a decent alternative to vote for. And the opposition is in disarray in ways that will have a profound impact on the country’s future.

President López Obrador swept into power in 2018 on a promise that he would cleanse Mexico of the corruption, violence, and stagnation that plagued it. His triumph smashed the old two-party system that dominated Mexican politics for decades. One was the PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century, ideologically swinging from left to right for convenience and repressing the democratic will through rigged elections, clientelism, and corruption. Then there’s the right-wing PAN, which took the presidency from the PRI in 2000 only to unleash the cartel violence that still haunts Mexico.

Sheinbaum receives the baton of command from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, president of Mexico, at the facilities of the Porrua bookstore in Mexico City on Sept. 07, 2023.
Sheinbaum receives the baton of command from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, President of Mexico, at the facilities of the Porrua bookstore in Mexico City on Sept. 07, 2023.Gerardo Vieyra—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Six years have passed but many of Mexico’s issues remain or have worsened. The old rivals of PAN and PRI have since joined forces, nominating the relatively unaffiliated Xóchitl Gálvez as their “citizen candidate.” Gálvez’s selection by the Alliance for Mexico, as this pact is known, was a tacit acknowledgement that neither on their own can command considerable support given their past failures.

The campaign was therefore designed as an anti-López Obrador alliance and its strategy has been to try to point out how badly Morena has run Mexico. But, throughout the campaign, Gálvez’s and the Alliance for Mexico have seemed set to show that anything they accuse the government of would be far worse in their hands.

The Alliance accuses Morena of cronyism. Yet it was jarring when, in the final presidential debate, Gálvez attacked Sheinbaum for giving ambassadorships to corrupt politicians. The only problem was that the politicians in question were former PRI governors.

The Alliance accuses Morena of corruption, only for the leader of the PAN to voluntarily tweet out how the Alliance was auctioning off political and administrative posts. It was a form of cronyism so normalized by these old parties that their leaders didn’t even realize that what they were publishing was illegal. 

The Alliance, which is only united in their opposition to López Obrador, has predictably not been able to produce a coherent platform. This has reinforced the view that they are only running for the sake of remaining in office. 

Claudia Sheinbaum during a news conference in Mexico City on June 11, 2023.
Claudia Sheinbaum during a news conference in Mexico City on June 11, 2023. Luis Antonio Rojas—Bloomberg/Getty Images

This is not necessarily far from the truth. Gálvez’s folksy charisma and personal honesty made her a contender early in the campaign. But, once it became apparent she was struggling to take off in the polls, PAN and PRI have focused on down ballot races. Money that was meant to go toward her presidential run was instead spent on the campaign’s of old political grandees looking to preserve any inkling of their past power.

Mexicans clearly want answers to their country’s ills. In the final days of the campaign, Citizen’s Movement (MC), a minor party with a progressive platform, has seen steady growth in the polls at the expense of Sheinbaum’s considerable lead. An MC win looks incredibly unlikely—their poll numbers have only gone from 7 to 12% in the past days—but its steady draw on voters shows how open this election truly was. 

More likely is a win for Sheinbaum and a majority in Congress for Morena and its allies. They will be faced with a crumbling opposition.

The checks and balances that make up Mexico’s democracy cannot function without a working opposition. Many of Sheinbaum’s policies are set to continue down the disastrous path of militarization and the undermining of Mexico’s institutions. 

The Alliance’s clumsy campaign stands in stark contrast with the serious accusations it has made about López Obrador’s Morena government, mainly that the Supreme Court and the electoral commission (INE) will be stripped of their autonomy. Unhelpfully, the Alliance has adopted the INE’s branding and colors. The tactic has made it seem to many that one of the country’s most respected independent democratic institutions is somehow aligned against the government, making it easier for Sheinbaum and her allies to claim bias and foul play.

Even if Morena weren’t to gain a majority, members of the opposition—particularly the PRI—have had a track record of voting with the government anyway. Many have simply switched to Morena after being elected for another party—one of the PRI’s leaders defected to the Sheinbaum camp a week before the election.

Ironically, Morena has done so well so quickly by pragmatically opening its doors to anyone that would defect from PAN and PRI. The result may be that Mexico might soon begin to see an opposition from within the party. 

The internal opponents to a Sheinbaum presidency will come from many flanks. Some will stem from ideologues who have felt the party has veered too far from its original left-wing vision. Others will simply resent not being given a desired post. Still others will spot an opportunity to undermine a future President Sheinbaum who does not have the iron grip on the party that López Obrador has.

It would be a return to the bad old days prior to 2000 in which Mexican politics was conducted within a single party. Yet, this single party rule wouldn’t have come about by the conniving of the ruling party, but by the ineptitude of the opposition. If and when they lose, they will only have themselves to blame—while the rest of Mexico pays for their folly.

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